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Low on Dough This Holiday Season?

12/19/2013 09:14 am ET | Updated Feb 18, 2014
  • Natalie Pace Author, 'The Gratitude Game,' 'The ABCs of Money' and 'You Vs. Wall Street'

Here are a few priceless gifts with a price tag you can afford.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday are stark reminders that Christmas has become the most wonderful time of the year... for retail. When the main focus of the holiday is on, "What did you get?" we miss out on the true spirit of the holiday season.

There is a secret blessing in those lean years of hardship that force us into husbandry. We must choose creativity over consumerism when gifting one another.

So, here are 10 ways to give more, while spending less.

1. White Elephants, Not Dollar Store Junk
2. Bad Santa, Not White Elephants
3. Creative Keepsakes
4. Heirlooms
5. Time, Not Money
6. Freedom, Not Money
7. Coupons
8. Rush Tickets
9. Charity
10. The Morning After

And here's the accounting of these fun, cost-saving holiday traditions.

1. White Elephants, Not Dollar Store Junk. It's a lot more fun to bring one thoughtful gift to a family or work party, than it is to race franticly to the store with a scroll of names and the goal of scratching off the to do list with the cheapest/least embarrassing gift. Cost: $15 and under, as opposed to hundreds of dollars. There are a lot of variations on the White Elephant gift giving tradition, which makes the gift exchange even more fun than the presents. My favorite is the Bad Santa Party.

2. Bad Santa, Not White Elephants. The Bad Santa Party is the least expensive White Elephant Party to host -- free -- and in my view the most fun. The premise of the Bad Santa gift exchange is that everyone is to wrap the worst gift that they have ever received. I've seen rooster cookie jars, Muzak CDs, cult religious literature. There is a story in every outlandish offering, and stealing is part of the game, offering up ample interaction and laughter. Guests select their gifts according to the number that they draw. If someone steals your gift, then you simply select a new one. Cost: Nothing. Fun factor: Through the roof.

3. Creative Keepsakes. What is your special talent? Cooking? Poetry? Music? Gardening? I have a cousin who sends out a Christmas song every year. A sister who crafts the most unique upholstery. An aunt whose cookies are out of this world. A friend with delicious homegrown tangerines. Honestly, the handcrafted cards that my son designs are the best gifts I've ever received, while my own coconut oil sugar scrub is a hit with my girlfriends. I feel cheated when I get store-bought goods from these folks. Because everyone already has the studio equipment, trees, yarn, baking goods and calligraphy tools to create their masterpieces, the costs are low, while the value is priceless.

4. Heirlooms. Some years the best gift is to rifle through the attic and find that unique hand-me-down that brings the past to life. Rock collections. Postage stamps. Costume jewelry. The heirloom doesn't have to be auctioned by Christie's to count, particularly if it embodies family folklore.

5. Time, Not Money. Try recalling your most memorable holiday. Chances are that it will be something you did, rather than something you received. (If it was something you received, it was probably something more personal than this year's hot toy.) Whether it was caroling, playing cards, ice skating, decorating gingerbread houses or serving food to the homeless, these are the memories that will stand the test of time. What can you do together this season to make the holiday more special?

6. Freedom, Not Money. On the 12th Night of Christmas in medieval England, peasants were royalty and royalty were peasants for a day -- until midnight ended the reign of the Lord of Misrule. (Rumor has it that Disney puts the execs in character costumes once a year, too.) It takes courage to give the gift of freedom, particularly to your children, but if you are brave enough to make your child King for a Day, the outlandish frolics that ensue will be epic pages in the family history. Let's face it, even when you've been good, there are some years that Santa's gift bag is going to be a little bare. That's when experiences are rich.

7. Coupons. With Groupon, Google Coupons, Priceline, Travelzoo and more, there are ample opportunities to find some five-star experiences at a blue-plate price. A little time searching for deals can yield a lot of savings.

8. Rush Tickets. Many theater, ballet, and opera companies offer discount tickets to students and seniors on the day of a performance that is not sold out. If you have more time than money, this is time well spent. There is almost always a free holiday concert near by. Los Angeles hosts a free Holiday Singalong on December 20, 2013 and a free holiday celebration on Christmas Eve at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Lincoln Center in NYC is host to free events almost every day of December. If your city isn't rich in free holiday fare, that's simply an invitation for you to organize a community celebration.

9. Charity. Charity is the heart of the winter holidays. The more hands-on you can make giving for your child, the better. Many times, the best opportunity for charity is within reach -- in our own families. One year, we took a family who was near and dear to us, who couldn't afford the tickets, to Disneyland. Below are a few other options to consider, as well.

10. The Morning After. The day after Christmas is when great decorations and gifts are sold for a song -- often up to 75 percent discount. Why not purchase a few great gifts to stick in the closet for next year? You can purchase high-end ornaments, angels, and more at Dollar Store prices.

Nonprofit Organizations to Remember During the Holidays

The Dillon Henry Foundation. Dillon Henry was a teen with tremendous heart and achievements, whose life was cut short by an auto accident when he was only 17 years old. The Dillon Henry Foundation now honors the charities closest to Dillon's heart, and has built a clinic in Darfur, donated generously to protect our oceans and awards scholarships to Pali High students who need financial assistance to attend college. You can support their efforts by visiting DillonsList.org.

Toys for Tots. In addition to giving toys, you can also request a toy, if your family is in need. As part of our family holiday tradition, the kids purchased a toy to donate for someone in their own age group -- allowing them to experience the joy of giving something they would like to receive. If Toys For Tots is not available in your neighborhood, donate your toys to the local Department of Children's Services, which protects and serves abused and neglected children, and distributes toys during the holidays.

Habitat for Humanity. Habitat for Humanity accepts volunteers from all walks of life and ages -- even from kids as young as 5. There are also opportunities for veterans to receive homes, volunteer and get a job. Your time and money go for a great cause.

The lean years helped my family to develop our favorite family traditions -- from homemade ornaments, to Bad Santa and beyond. If you have a tradition to share, please do so in the comments section of this blog.

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